Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1995). This date is a guess and an estimate; the Reader gives the date of this capsule as a decade earlier, a couple of years before I started writing for the paper. — J.R.

The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing 1989 documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us courtesy of Clint Eastwood, executive producer — is drawn from 14 hours of footage of Monk, in performance and offstage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood over six months in 1968. The musical value of this footage is so powerful that nothing can deface it, despite the best efforts of Zwerin to do so: all the worst habits of jazz documentaries in treating the music, from cutting off numbers midstream to burying them with voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; adding insult to injury are the merely adequate performances (by contemporary piano duo Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) of two unabridged Monk tunes. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts by friends and family of the mental illness that plagued his final years aren’t very illuminating — though here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding — and there’s virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level.… Read more »

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

From the July 1, 2005 Chicago Reader.To celebrate a lovely new restoration coming out. — J.R.


Bert Stern’s film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (1960; his only film) features Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Eric Dolphy, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, and many others. Shot in gorgeous color, it’s probably the best feature-length jazz concert movie ever made. Despite some distracting cutaways to boats in the opening sections, it eventually buckles down to an intense concentration on the music and the audience’s rapport with it as afternoon turns into evening. Jackson’s rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” is a particularly luminous highlight. Stern doesn’t seem to know what distinguishes mediocre from good or great jazz — he didn’t even bother to film Miles Davis at the same festival, and he allows a stupid announcement about boats to cover up part of a Monk solo — so all three get equal amounts of his attention. But he’s very good at showing people listening. 85 min. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

On a favorite film review

From Sight and Sound (October 2008), in response to a poll query about what film criticism had had the greatest effect on me and inspired me to become a film critic — J.R.

From Penelope Houston’s review of Last Year in Marienbad in the Winter 1961-62 issue of Sight and Sound:

…And so she goes to the midnight meeting with the stranger, sits waiting rigidly for the clock to strike, leaves with him. But about this ending there is no sense of exaltation or relief. She goes because she has no choice, because for her all the possibilities have narrowed down to a single decision, but she has no idea where she is going. The stranger’s final words offer no comforting clue: “It seemed, at first sight, impossible to lose yourself in that garden… where you are now already beginning to lose yourself, for ever, in the quiet night, alone with me.” The film’s last shot is of the great chateau; and, with its few lighted windows, it no longer looks like a prison but like a place of refuge.

I read this review in my late teens, before I saw Resnais’ glorious masterpiece and quite a few years before I ever met Penelope.… Read more »


Atom Egoyan’s new film, shot with a mini DV camera, shows Egoyan; his wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian; and their son, Arshile, vacationing in Beirut, where Khanjian lived as a child. Though an essay film, it’s made poetic by Egoyan’s thoughtful narration and subversive by its shift to fiction in the final sequence (which is also the title sequence). It’s also one of the best things Egoyan has done since Calendar (1993), which it resembles in its closing stretches. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Orson Welles’ THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (a few glimpses)

Some images from the (partial) Italian and German restoration of Orson Welles’ The Merchant of Venice, about 35 minutes long, shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. The lost original, made circa 1969, was closer to 40 minutes in length. — J.R.